And Quds Force Dilemma
Responses from Syria and Iraq have been similar: the Syrian government appears to be resigned at conceding the northeastern territories to the militants, trying to hold on western Syria. And doing so with the help of the Iranian Quds Force (QF) and Lebanese Hezbollah and an assortment of QF-led Shia militias, forming a unified front, the NDF, to augment the Syrian Army. The Iraqis seem to have established Samarra-Balad region as their first line of defense against the ISIL’s advance toward Baghdad, with an ultimate strategy of defending the capital and Shia south. And doing so with the help of the Quds Force and their Shia militias, but not as unified as the NDF.
The Islamic State has in effect already split the region into four parts: Assad’s western Syria; Islamic State’s northeastern Syria and western and northern Iraq; Baghdad and Shia south; and an independent Kurdistan. And they have done so in a lightening speed.
The Quds Force is the constant here; with Damascus and increasingly Baghdad relying on its leadership and what they bring to the table, organizing, funding, training, arming, and providing logistics to the Shia militia forces, to save the two governments.
But the Quds Force and General Soleimani are facing a dilemma: their successful NDF model in Syria is not working in Iraq. The Iraqi Shia militias ready to fight the ISIL across the country could not be united and have proven not as effective as required under the dire circumstances. And those Shia militias who could probably put up a serious and effective fight want to limit their presence at the battle space to defending Shia shrines. The former are the likes of Kataib Hezbollah, AHH, and Badr; the latter are the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, his Promised Day Brigade and Mahdi Army.
Soleimani should not have been surprised. The Iraqi Shia militias have their origins in post-2003 invasion, organized by the QF to fight U.S. forces in Iraq. Even then, they could not form a united front against the United States. The group rivalry and political and ideological differences are no less today. Iran might be forced to put boots on the ground if the situation in Baghdad deteriorates.
The Iraqi government however could be able to hold Baghdad, with QF/militias help, as well as their own counter-terrorism special forces. The government is also awash with cash, exporting crude oil from Basra and bringing in billions of dollars a month, able to pay for the defense of its shrunk territory, at least for some time to come. Assad wished he had the same amount of cash!
It’s going to be long summer and fall in the region. Four increasingly independent regions substituting for the remnants of two countries created 100 years ago.
Map: BBC/Institute for the Study of War (ISW)